I have been privileged to have been in the position to support many mothers having difficulties with, and experiencing pain in relation to, their teenagers over the years and in spite of being retired from psychotherapeutic work after 30 years of practice, this involvement has continued informally to a much larger degree since retirement within social contacts and support groups to which I belong. I’m currently housebound so I thought I’d write about the most common themes friends are messaging about.
Men have difficulties with their teenagers too, (though these are not the issues that my male clients tend to bring to therapy). This article is particularly about mothers’ difficulties, it may be helpful to fathers though I’m currently working on a follow up article Team Teenager (see end of this article) which is less about the ‘why?’ and more about what to do and addresses the whole team of adults involved.
Quite a lot of people I talk to want to know why their teenagers prefer hanging out with dad while their main interaction with their mother is to have intense rows.
As I worked on the commonalities that mothers face, often in competition with dads that the children prefer, I wasn’t simply seeing this from the perspective of a mother, but also as a daughter. Was it possible, I wondered, that my irritations and attitudes towards my own mother were not all her ‘fault’ and were, at least in part, to do with societal roles fuelled by unconscious misogyny and sexism and inevitable biology?
However liberated [we] are, we are raised in sexist cultures.
Every situation and every family is different and I can’t do justice to such diversity in this short article. I am going to be discussing families that, on the spectrum of gender role conformity, conform to an average or an extreme level, simply because they provide clearer illustration. I’m also using a heteronormative model, because I think that the inequality in the teenagers’ battles with mum more than dad, are rooted in the heteronormative society and the influence it has on the whole family’s behaviour. Typically most readers who are interested in parenting probably don’t conform to extreme stereotypes so please take what is useful and adapt for yourself, while also bearing in mind that everyone is affected by their culture’s societal norms, at least mildly or moderately, and however liberated any of us are, female or male, however much we challenge gender roles and heteronormative constructs, we are raised in sexist cultures.
Sexism plays a part in mothers drawing the short end of the stick when children move into the … rebellious stage…
So excuse my generalisations and adherence to stereotypical norms for the purposes of raising some points about how sexism plays a part in mothers drawing the short end of the stick when children move into the individuation or rebellious stage of personality growth.
I have three areas to discuss in this post:
1) The purpose of adolescence (and how menopause interacts with this)
2) The intensity and frequency of contact between a parent and their offspring
3) The belittling and ridicule peculiar to women who become mothers
The mother-child relationship is symbiotic
Let’s start with the relationship of a mother and babies. During pregnancy and the first year or so of a baby’s life, the relationship isn’t merely supportive, between a mother and her baby, it is symbiotic. The two are pretty much one, and the baby’s survival is their joint purpose. The mother is being trained and becoming practiced in putting her child’s needs first and in muting the volume on her own needs. Her personality alters, her activities and her skills set broaden and she becomes a specialist in tiny detailed information irrelevant to anyone else (how to get her baby to latch on, what different pitches of cries mean, the most satisfactory way to carry this infant). Such are the biological predispositions and supportive hormones that make such love possible. We can add to this societal expectations that increase the learning curve in that it’s often a mother’s job to know how to convert the pram to a pushchair or to a child seat, how many pounds the baby should gain, the correct temperature for the nursery, the best local preschool and so on.
This is also the beginning of opportunities to sew the seeds of insidious self-doubt and mother-blame in the newly-vulnerable woman. Was she confident and competent before motherhood? Did that annoy you a bit? Don’t worry, now’s your chance to kick her when she’s down: Wait till she’s several months sleep deprived with a crying baby and night feeding and then drop in a, “well babies with stressed mothers do cry a lot”, or, “you are letting that child rule you by picking it up every time”, or, “and you said you wouldn’t change!”.
The child is learning … that they can argue with their mother without … losing her
The next, quite lovely, but all-consuming, phases of mothering children, are the pre-school and school years, again the mother becomes an expert in multiple and assorted skills and in the particular child, often championing them through difficult situations where the courage to face teachers, medics or other adults is necessary, and learning their own child’s psychology, how to encourage them and teach them. The first challenging behaviours are faced but usually successfully and skillfully with the help of parenting books and other mums. Multitasking while simultaneously becoming extraordinarily well versed in how to fill a party bag, the mother won’t notice her capabilities expanding and her incredible versatility. Society won’t encourage her to notice, because sales of books and magazines and products all depend on her growing certainty that she’s not getting it right for her child. However her capability is on a par with Wonder Woman, just stop for a moment and look at the mothers you know with pre-adolescent children, what is there not to admire?
Through these stages the child is learning to trust their mother and that they can argue with their mother without risking losing her and that their mother will put their needs before her own. Many children are loving and affectionate throughout these stages but they don’t usually perceive any vulnerability or need in their parents.
Flying the nest: they need to not care!
The purpose of teenagers is to separate and individuate from their parents as a task necessary to eventually live independently as an adult. Biologically their brains actually reduce their capacity for empathy and develop a more selfish orientation. How could they possibly push their parents away without this adjustment? No they need to not care (‘whateva!’; ‘speak to the hand!’) especially about their parents. They focus on building their place in the world and are mainly interested in their friendship group. They develop a distaste for their parents’ views and attitudes and perceive them as old and out of date. Can you see how well this fits the purpose of flying the nest?
The more involved (in intensity and frequency) the more the parent will experience the brunt of the un-empathic dismissal. The involved parent will be experienced as the most annoying, the one most in need of being shaken off and pushed away. Being seen more by the teen means this parent’s flaws are seen more, not their love or their wisdom or their sacrifices even. It is their mistakes, their foibles and idiosyncrasies which are known intimately and all to be disliked, ridiculed or dismissed.
The more involved parent will be experienced as the most annoying
The parent the child is most secure of not losing will be the obvious parent to practice the separation from; a parent they have already practiced this with earlier on and successfully fought without being abandoned. Add to the mix a few unconscious sexist beliefs: mum has hormones; mum is very emotional (and this is linked with her lack of intelligence because sexism would have us believe that you can’t be emotional and intelligent); mum doesn’t know much. The work mum does in the home is invisible, devalued and dismissed. The teenager is affronted to be asked to partake of demeaning, thankless tasks but unaware that their acceptance that their mother should do these tasks is a contradiction. The mother’s career or job is often at a grade or three below her expertise, because she is a woman first of all and secondly will have made sacrifices, such as going part-time or self employed in order to fit their work around putting the children first.
It’s not always possible to distinguish normal teenage rebelliousness and lack of empathy from the unconscious sexist beliefs they are picking up around them. Recognising these issues is not a suggestion to mention them to the teenager, as we will discuss later, raising issues of oppression is a nuanced art. Being right versus harmonious living has to be addressed with wisdom.
At some point many mothers too, will desire that their child leaves the nest, though the timing of this is not always a perfect fit for the societal constraints: she may get the pushing urge a few years earlier or later than age 18 of her offspring. Her own life processes mean that the ‘happy hormone’ of oxytocin (produced during that early symbiotic phase and sustained by close and involved contact), that hormone is decreasing in the mother. As this happens the ability to put up with shit and to engage in repetitive, unskilled, unpaid tasks, decreases. Some women (myself included) feel the veil falling from their eyes as a rapid experience and may experience shock and anger about seeing with fresh eyes how they have lost out and been diminished by a role that they and their partner have colluded in creating. Their kids are being shitty and their husbands are elsewhere and their happy hormones have run out. ‘When are you leaving home?’ They ask their teenager (or husband).
oxytocin is decreasing in the mother
Women with teenage kids may be hitting an urgent stage in their own life process, a desire to individuate, find their own self expression and a growing need to make their mark in the world. The adolescent hormones of their teenagers clash with their own menopausal hormones and are worsened considerably by the context of sexism. The purpose of the teenager is to individuate and their brain function adapts specifically to prioritise this task, at the same time their mother has some unfinished self-definition work to pick up where she left off, pre children.
When she becomes a mother, the ‘feed on demand’ philosophy being dominant and breastfeeding being promoted (both of these I agree with), immediately brings about a situation where the child’s needs set the behavior of the mother and they demand a high frequency and intensity of mother – child interaction. Biology determines this for sure, but hetero-normative assumption and sexism continues this expectation beyond breastfeeding where having breasts makes the mother suitable for a greater role than the father, way beyond infancy and right into teenage-hood more than a decade after weaning. By this point, if the sexist expectations of the mother were unquestioned, everyone has forgotten that this was not inevitable.
the child’s needs set the behavior of the mother
I see my involvement as a mother as a full immersion experience, a (chosen) loss of self to engage in the role and then (chosen) re-emergence in midlife, in order to redefine and re-invent myself. If we drew this involvement with my children on a graph there would be a sharp rise at their birth, a big peak and long plateaus of years, while gradually easing off. A father may have a lot of involvement or not much, but whichever intensity it is, his line on the graph is pretty steady. It doesn’t rise as steeply. His involvement never has the same intensity and he doesn’t experience a loss of self in the same way. The father doesn’t need to work on extricating himself at the other end. His concerns of empty nest syndrome are usually more about the emotional changes in his spouse than himself. His declining involvement is less noticeable to the teenager than hers, mothers often report getting texts from their teens, ‘Where are you?’ ‘When will you be home?’, when it first comes to their attention that mum may be having an independent life. The very questions that the teens hate being asked, are now sent to mum. There is often an annoyance in the teen about mum’s independence, a resistance. They don’t want you to be involved but they don’t want you to go away either. This push-pull scenario may increase loneliness (sitting on the sofa alone while everyone else lives their lives) and guilt (when the mother decides to peruse her own interests).
Mothers often get a raw deal because of a fluctuation in the type of involvement they have with their children: first intensely involved and then extricating.
Pushing … away indicates their confidence in their own capacity
To my kids I represented a dependent relationship. They didn’t want that, they wanted to be independent so when all was well, they rejected me as a sign to themselves of health. Pushing me away indicated their confidence in their own capacity. When they are vulnerable, even now, they might use a more dependent tone of voice, they jokingly use the words ‘mummy’ or ‘momma’ more and they will ask for old rituals, such as ‘, ‘I want a hedgehog cake for my birthday’. My adult kids know that ‘mummy’ is always on standby to handle regression without judgment.
Mothers may get a raw deal because they are the boundary setters for more hours per day. If I had an upsetting or difficult situation with my teens during the day, when their dad returned, he would say, “I’m not getting involved“; “it’s between you and them”; “I’m staying out of it“. A willingness to play with them and put them to bed and change nappies when they were little, did not translate into a willingness to boundary set or to deal with the individuation process. To him this seemed a wise stance and much easier. Less stress. Maybe it paid off in terms of his relationship with his kids, but each re-enforcement of this attitude re-enforced the isolating divided roles, experience for me.
Staying out of it is a very clear indication of devaluing maternal / paternal involvement, devaluing the parent who is involved, and insuring, by default, one’s position with the teenager as the more comfortable parent to be with. It makes it clear that one parent is not willing to share the task of parenting but wishes to divide it in a way, along historically oppressive lines, to favour the father. To disengage from and show no interest in the primary work of your partner, has an impact on the adults’ relationship. Making a mother’s work into some imagined and co-created problem that one is unwilling to help with, makes her invisible and isolated and in dismissing her hints of sexist assumption.
there is no biological reason for the divisions of parenting along sexist lines
We can’t cover all the variables in this article, though I am writing a ‘sister article’ to look at the support that other parents (including step parents) can consider engaging with. As a catch-all for now, when parents separate out the combined roles needed to support teenagers, those of support and space, dividing the roles between them as ‘his’ and ‘hers’, rather than sharing both equally, the boundary setting parent will become increasingly isolated and feel scapegoated in her own home. Mum will feel that she has all the battles and dad has all the fun. Or her teen will naturally complain, ‘I want to go back to dad’s house’, if you are living separately.
when parents separate out the .. roles … of support and space … the boundary setting parent will become increasingly isolated
The more parents share both roles, the more kicks the fathers gets and their easier it is for a mother to pull herself out of symbiosis, trusting it isn’t always her turn to get involved. If the father sidesteps the boundary setting with teens, the mother becomes the odd one out in the household. This need not be the case, there is no biological reason for the divisions of parenting along sexist lines.
The Boundary Setter is caught in a Catch-22, either she holds the boundaries and is seen as “bad cop“ or she gives up on the idea of boundaries and has to be content with being walked all over in her home, watching her children become brats. Some swing uneasily between the two polarities, battling with integrity and a genuine need to be loved and to be part of the family. I don’t believe this is wrong, it’s a natural outcome of an unequal division, an adjustment because no one can tolerate being the outcast the whole time.
Added to this, mothers are often under the constant pressure from society, their own mothers, or mother in laws and the insidious devaluing of all they do, while the secretly feeling they’re also doing a worse and worse job in their place of work.
The assumption that if there’s a problem between mum and kids it must be of their own making is convenient for a society or a dad who just doesn’t want the hassle. It’s also damaging for young women and men as it is not teaching them how to listen to the distress of someone who is telling a story of oppression. It is teaching them the oppressor’s way, of defending oneself from challenge by gaslighting the victim, making out that it is she who is the real problem, not the behaviours causing the distress.
As with all minority groups, the more ‘fuss’ made about the injustice, unfairness, and the more emotion showed, the more the oppressors point is proved, that you are unstable, unworthy, exaggerating and generally unpleasant to be in the company of. A process I had to address writing this article was that while I can give personal examples, I have to think carefully about it. Speaking out about my own oppression as a woman is not wrong, stating facts about what was said and how I felt about it is not wrong. But is it wise? Sometimes people get angry with someone who raises issues of their oppression. It can backfire into victim blaming and people feeling sorry for or protective of the person behaving with privilege. I have been hesitant, feeling the importance of raising these issues but feeling wary of a ‘second wave’ of dismissal of my story and provoking anger for speaking about my experience. All I can say about this is that in my personal situation the acceptance and perpetration of sexist assumptions in parenting were the responsibility of all the adults involved, myself included, and rippling out into the society surrounding us. My kids’ parents were born in the 1960’s to parents who were born in the 1930’s. Each generation has improved the expectations of women and I only hope to do my part in releasing my generation’s mistakes so that my children’s generation can do better than we did.
I only hope to do my part in releasing my generation’s mistakes
Remember the comment made to a new mother that implied the baby was crying because the mother was stressed rather than the other way round? This process now gets replayed. The mother is withdrawn from and ignored for being emotional and (in my household) ‘inappropriate’. It is never acknowledged the emotion stems from being isolated and gaslighted. When dad pronounces that mum’s protest about the role division, her upset and anger, is ‘inappropriate’, who is there to question why he is the expert and pronouncer of what is and isn’t appropriate? It took me a long time to realise that it wasn’t my fault and that ‘inappropriate’ was just code meaning others didn’t like it and didn’t want to address my complaints.
And how does a teenager learn how to treat a mother’s upset? They watch role models, sexist media input and they watch what the father does. For all teens it is vital that they see respect for women and their work and roles. The witty jokes and put downs, I even laughed along, and shared them with others: wasn’t it funny when I was asking my teenager to ‘centre’ and for us all to ‘take a breath’ and ‘focus on our positive energy’ and the best way of communicating, wasn’t it amusing when their dad interjected, ‘and now YOU are starting to get on my nerves!’ because I was sounding like a hippy? I wasn’t aware, he wasn’t aware, there wasn’t malice, but that doesn’t mean it was harmless. I now try to avoid sharing menopause jokes on social media, but still unconsciously do. As women, raising our own awareness is the place to start.
Small misogyny inflated … once my kids were teens
If the father of our children isn’t going to help with this task by modelling respect towards the teenagers’ mother thus teaching appropriate behaviour, then we have to find how we are going to survive during times when respect is not forthcoming. Self respect is a good place to start.
To help yourself, remember your child’s forming stage is over and they are now breaking away. You can’t control whether they like you or give you respect, but you can begin by acknowledging their life stage, your life stage and by attempting to be a parent who keeps a life line for their kids no matter how old they are.
Due to the intensity of the childhood relationship, the mother has a lot more adjusting to do than the father, she will be helped and helpful if she can untangle a little and become less involved but it is different for the father because the basis of relationship is and always has been support not symbiosis.
Whatever your degree of entanglement, however loosely or tightly the parenting tasks of support and challenge are run along traditional lines, you can, as a mother, help the teenage individuation process (and your own comfort) by untangling yourself a little more.
It is unnecessary for me to tell my kids to not leave their drinks unattended or to book an orthodontic appointment or to get more sleep. They don’t need me to remind them, and our relationship would be enhanced if I stopped saying those things, but that involves a process of extrication from old habits that takes time and it’s about finding the level of tolerance in both parties.
Practise … not asking a question you’d normally ask
Untangle as much as you can. If you’re lucky your own impatient thoughts of, ‘when are you leaving home?’ will arrive (I was utterly surprised by their arrival, as an ‘earth-mother’ type I assumed I’d always want my kids in the bosom of the family). If not, ‘fake it till you make it’! Practise every day, not asking a question you’d normally ask. Reduce asking their whereabouts to essential times. See what happens if you don’t ask if they’ve done their homework. Don’t remind them of tasks they already know, e.g. to brush teeth etc. Stick to safety essentials but let them feel the consequences of getting their homework in or not.
The more entangled you are, the more scope for mistakes on your part; for rows and the more aggressive cutting of tangles they will do. Gracefully step back and pick your battles. Always pick safety battles over appearances, for example. What they wear is not worth the loss of relationship, getting home safely is worth discussing.
hating and loving are not mutually exclusive
Part of our job is to sit back and watch our young adult kids make a wrong decision or waste their time. Ask yourself – how much time did you waste when you were their age? It’s part of life. If we’ve not wasted time then we will never feel the horror or regret of that. If we’ve not chosen the wrong career path or partner then we are either lucky or unenlightened as yet!
So in response to a mother’s anguished message, ‘Why do my teens prefer their dad to me?’:
1) Don’t take it personally. It is your child’s process to suddenly lack empathy for you, to need to separate and disagree strongly with you and to feel these things are of primary importance. Reflect on your experiences as a teenager, remember your feelings towards your parents, yourself and your friends. Engage your empathy for the process of being a teenager.
2) Untangle as much as is wise. The less involved you are the less kicking you will get. Trust that you’ve done a good enough job and let them prove it. You get the brunt because you have had intensity and frequency of contact. It’s a good sign they are kicking. Accept that if you want to be a parent rather than a friend, it is part of the deal to get a rough time of it.
3) Address and redress any slippage of respect for women. Be vocal (or ‘volcanic’ as my autocorrect just said), about your feminism and forge your own individuation and freedom from any stifling roles you’ve taken on. Have fun with that one, your kids will find whatever you do ‘embarrassing’ but may be secretly proud. You cannot make the teenager have respect for you through argument, punishment or logic (it’s completely counter to their essential life process), but you can have self respect. Don’t waste time trying to convince them they are putting you down, put yourself up!
Their hatred of you is not related to their love for you. It is necessary to for them to hate their ‘nest’ in order to leave it. The bond established in childhood will remain as long as you do not attack them, or lose your position. Their adolescence may last into their mid twenties and you have no control over that lengthy process. They may dislike you but that doesn’t mean they won’t respect and admire you. The best way of ensuring their respect is to check – do you have self-respect? Use their lack of empathy to kick-start your own independence. Remember hating and loving are not mutually exclusive, your children will want to love you but it can’t be demanded.
Team Teenager: Supporting mothers helps everyone
This is a follow up to my article about why mums often get a worse time with teenagers than dads, and it addresses some of the things that a father of teenagers could re-think, as well as looking at step parenting by men and women who partner mothers of teenagers.
In my previous article I wrote about the processes behind the difficulties we often have with teenagers. Here I want to look at a few ideas of how mothers and their team can handle the issues…